Simon Mayo’s debut novel inspired by East Anglia
Take a bright teenager, add a radioactive new element and mix in a baddie or two and you've got the recipe for a fast-moving adventure, the first novel by Radio 2 presenter Simon Mayo. STEVEN RUSSELL found out why he chose to set it in Suffolk.
Simon Mayo knows Suffolk pretty well and he's woven some of it into his debut novel — after 'borrowing' the names of key characters from one of the county's most majestic churches.
The pair are schoolboy Itchingham Lofte – a 14-year-old whose bedroom has been the scene of a number of bangs and flashes because of his interest in chemistry – and teacher Nathaniel Flowerdew. He's head of science, rakishly good looking but perpetually sour, and might just be a mad and evil villain.
They're fictional, of course, but their names belonged to real people: 17th Century curates at Holy Trinity, Blythburgh – the imposing church off the A12 that's known as 'The Cathedral of the Marshes'.
Simon has been coming to Suffolk's heritage coast for about 12 years – spending a fair bit of time here as 'one of those irritating Londoners that wanders up'.
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He was having a look round the church five years ago when he came across a plaque on the north aisle wall. It listed former curates. 'The reason why I noticed their names in the first place is because on the plaque it makes a point of saying 'Mr Nathaniel Flowerdew', whereas all the others just have their name. And then after his name it says, in brackets, 'intruder'.
The presenter of BBC Radio 2's Drivetime show enthuses: 'The names are just spectacular. When I saw it, I took a photograph of the plaque and thought 'Who knows? I might be able to use those names...'
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'In the book, Itchingham's father is Nicholas, and in real life his father was Nicholas. There are a few bits and pieces around on the internet, but not much. I think he ended up as a vicar in Norfolk.
'Nathaniel might have been a very nice person, but clearly those who ran Holy Trinity, Blythburgh, wanted to put on record that he was an intruder. He'd upset some people...'
The names were tucked away in a corner of Simon's memory. Then a couple of years ago when he set out to write a science-based short story for son Joe, now 12, an avid reader.
'It just sort of took over from there, to be honest, and after a couple of chapters I stopped writing it for him and wrote it for myself! I became possessed with the idea, really. I was waking up in the night and thinking about plot and character and timeline, and what worked and didn't work. Then, when I got to 94,000 words, I thought 'I need to see whether this is any good'.'
The good news was that publishers Doubleday liked Itch enough to publish it.
Accidental hero Itchingham is a chemistry-loving element hunter living in Cornwall: not keen on football or computers but determined to collect all 118 elements in the periodic table. He stores them in shoeboxes and a special rucksack.
When Itch is mysteriously handed a new element – one highly radioactive and potentially very valuable – he has to draw on all his wits and scientific knowledge to shield it from the wrong people.
The impetus for the story came from the real-life tale of science fanatic David Hahn, dubbed The Radioactive Boy Scout for trying to build a nuclear reactor in his mother's garden shed, near Detroit, in the 1990s.
Simon wrote through 2010 and edited the story last year. Progress wasn't smooth. 'It's like chiselling granite, basically! I tried to do 1,000 words a day but rarely managed it. But occasionally you're in the zone, it's flowing and you think 'This is great' – and stuff happens that you weren't expecting. That's the best thing: 'Oh wow! I didn't know I was going to write this!'
His radio shows have often carried interviews with authors, and currently feature a 'Book Club' section. Does joining the ranks of published writers bring extra stress?
'I did tentatively suggest I write it under a different name,' he reveals, 'which the publishers entertained for about 30 seconds. The publishing industry is where the music industry was 10 years ago, and every book needs all the help it can get.'
He's now working on the sequel, which is 'slightly more pressured because people know what I'm doing, whereas with the first one there was no pressure'.
t Itch is published by Doubleday, priced �12.99.